BitTorrent’s Achilles’ Heel

The popular BitTorrent web site Mininova was sued by the Dutch anti-piracy organization BREIN this week in a bid to get Mininova to filter unlicensed content. The organization has had some success in the past against Edonkey and BitTorrent web sites, so there is at least a possibility that Mininova will be forced to either take down most of its torrent files or shut down completely. Either way, it would be a big blow for the BitTorrent community. Since launching in early 2005, Mininova has quickly become one of the biggest BitTorent directories, with almost 5 billion torrent downloads to date.

The possibility of Mininova closing down also raises an important issue: BitTorrent is a highly centralized P2P protocol to begin with, depending on central servers both to catalog content and facilitate downloads. The growing popularity of the protocol has led to the creation of a few torrent powerhouses, with Mininova and The Pirate Bay being two of the most prominent. Could this increasingly monolithic infrastructure be the Achilles’ heel of BitTorrent piracy?

BitTorrent users could have gotten a first glimpse of what a world without Mininova might look like last month. A faulty load balancer resulted in a few days of Mininova downtime, which led to millions of users flooding other BitTorrent web sites. The P2P news web site Torrentfreak reported that Mininova was getting over 3 million unique visitors per day, and the resulting surge in traffic overwhelmed some other sites to the point that they went down as well.

The situation is even more critical when it comes to The Pirate Bay, which is facing lawsuits by Swedish and U.S. rights holders. The Pirate Bay is not only a staple in the BitTorrent community because of its popular web site, but also because it is running the most popular BitTorrent tracker server. Tracker servers facilitate the exchange of bits and pieces between BitTorrent users, and they’re the main reason the protocol has become so effective and popular for the download of large media files. Mininova and many other sites actually index torrent files that are managed by the Pirate Bay tracker server. A takedown of this server could have a domino effect on the entire BitTorrent community, rendering large parts of sites like Mininova useless.

The Pirate Bay team has maintained that the site’s servers are spread around the world, making it impossible to take them down altogether. These claims have to be taken with a grain of salt. Back-up servers might exist, but it’s hard to move your entire infrastructure from country to country once you reach a certain size. To make matters worse, the Bay’s founders’ ISP has become a harbor for many other torrent sites that could equally be affected by any future action against the site.

BitTorrent inventor Bram Cohen has always said that his protocol is rather ill-equipped for piracy, and the case of Mininova shows that the centralization of BitTorrent is a big part of the problem. However, this doesn’t mean that anti-piracy organizations will necessarily win. BitTorrent developers have started efforts to decentralize the protocol years ago with the introduction of a DHT, which is essentially a P2P network that connects BitTorrent users and makes it possible to continue downloads even if a tracker server is unavailable.

Cornell University researchers have published a BitTorrent extension this week that could become another important step towards decentralization. Cubit is a plug-in for the popular BitTorrent client Vuze that offers its users a distributed search engine. This is somewhat similar to the way traditional P2P clients like Limewire facilitate file sharing, but Cubit has a few interesting twists. Users can for example search for approximate keywords, meaning you’ll even get results if you misspell the title of your favorite TV show.

Cubit may not completely solve BitTorrent’s problems, but it can teach us an important lesson: Sites like Mininova are currently the hubs of video swapping, and shutting the down would certainly shake up the BitTorrent world as we know it — but it wouldn’t stop file sharing.

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